"We could only cook in a 300-litre steam kettle – that was it."
"I will never forgive you, Mr Hoffmann!" Gerald Hoffmann doesn't think back quite so fondly to moments like this that occurred some 30 years ago. The post-reunification years were not only times of new beginnings. For some people, they brought serious disruptions, such as the loss of their jobs. When the Studentenwerk was re-founded, Gerald Hoffmann was also responsible for implementing the necessary steps in his area of responsibility and conducting staff interviews to wind up some parts of the organisation. This was because the economic and social institutions that operated independently at each university in the GDR were integrated into the Studentenwerk along with their approximately 500 employees. The necessary focus on economic efficiency and rationalisation required a reduction in the number of jobs - and thus a cutback in staff in the following years. "When it was founded, it was already obvious that some jobs would be cut", Hoffmann recalls. He helped organize who could retire or transfer into early retirement. "It was not always easy and also painful when you had to talk to fellow workers with whom you had already worked for many years." But they were necessary measures for which there were no alternatives at the time." He also received some angry glances and words. Once a couple even crossed the street to avoid him when they met Hoffmann.
"Another difficult change was when we were supposed to abolish the food stamps and offer food free of charge. We didn't know how much food we would sell and had to throw some away. The security of the planned economy was gone." The more so as there was a lack of equipment to cook in smaller quantities. "We could only cook in a 300-litre steam kettle – that was it."
But the planned economy was not exactly a dream come true for the preparation of meals in the Mensas either. Central purchasing was organized in the main department in Peterssteinweg. There were quotas that the cooks had to follow. So there couldn't be schnitzel every week. This made the kind of improvisation that the GDR was so famous for necessary here as well. Overall, the food supply was shaped by scarcity: people prepared the food, that was available - no one had to stay hungry, states Hoffmann. "Compared to the present-day menu, there were more stews, pulses and offal, and recipes such as lost eggs, liver or kidney ragout, Thuringian pot roast and pork belly in various forms of preparation.
Events such as the New Year's Eve party for the staff were also held in the central Mensa. This was nothing unusual; every large company organized various celebrations for its employees over the course of the year, which promoted the spirit of the collective, that was to go beyond a mere working relationship. "When it came to parties, we could compete with the Interhotel."
Hoffmann recalls with a smile a luxury that many did not even notice: "For a long time, good export beer was served." Since the opening in 1973, the central Mensa was equipped with a central tank system for the quick supply of beverages. Beer was also served from the tank. For many years it was Wernesgrüner, which otherwise went to the West as an exported good. "So the students drank beer from the tap, which you couldn't even get in a bottle in the shop or was only known as so-called "Bückware"."
Gerald Hoffmann got a first taste of working in a Mensa when he was still at school. He began his three-year cook apprenticeship in the Mensa in 1973. After a few years of work, he attended the technical college for catering and hotel management from 1978-81 and then returned as head of the mid-level catering. His areas of responsibility: catering facilities for break times / handing out of food / guest house with restaurant + hotel. After the re-foundation of the Studentenwerk, he became Mensa division manager and finally main administrator in the Mensa & Cafeterias/Central Purchasing department.
Zeitzeugeninterview: Tobias Prüwer